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Lost Lives of London Town: The Fire-Eaters

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

The Lost Lives of London Town series remembers the lives of Africans and African-Americans enslaved in the London Town area. We'll share their stories as best as we know of them. The stories aren't always easy to read, but they are always important.

During the Civil War, the "Fire-Eaters” were strongly pro-slavery Southerners who believed in leaving the Union. There were Fire-Eaters in Maryland, including several along the South River. For example, just down the road from London Town – where the Riva Road Bridge stands today – the Taylorsville House has a secret message on the interior side of a slat: “Jeff Davis and the South," which is a reference to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. 

In this post of the "Lost Lives of London Town," we're not looking at the life of a specific African-American person, but at the some of the people who wanted to keep slavery, ensuring that an entire race of people would continue being nothing more than property legally.

This group included very powerful people, such as General George H. Steuart, who owned all the land directly bordering the Anne Arundel County Almshouse (William Brown House, c.1760). His estate was known as Mount Steuart. 

In 1859, Steuart had been a militia officer who marched against John Brown at Harper's Ferry. He also wrote a fiery letter to Washington, DC National Intelligencer after Lincoln's election in 1860, in which he claimed the election was a fraud, "because of the negro votes cast and counted for him in the states of New York, Ohio, and Massachusetts." In the election, only three people in all of Anne Arundel County voted for Abraham Lincoln. 

Steuart also supported the Dredd Scott decision, in which another Marylander – Chief Justice Roger B. Taney – wrote that no person of color anywhere in the nation possessed "rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit." This applied to people born either in slavery or free.

Steuart wasn't the only person in the area who was pro-slavery. Just a few miles from the Almshouse was Commodore Isaac Mayo, a decorated veteran of the United States Navy. Though too old to fight, he wrote an angry letter of resignation to Abraham Lincoln. He accused Lincoln of having "denied to millions of freemen the rights of the Constitution and in its stead, you have placed the will of a sectional party." The use of the word "freemen" by someone so pro-slavery was undoubtedly galling to the President. While more than 100 officers were granted their requests for resignation, Mayo's letter was returned with the simple notation, "Dismiss by order of the President, Done May 18, 1861." His resignation was not accepted. 

That same day, Mayo was found dead by a gunshot wound to the head, possibly self-inflicted, although this is debated by his family. He died enslaving twenty-three men, women, and children, ages from one to fifty-four years old.

Today, Mayo’s home – the Gresham Estate – is being operated by London Town. Stay tuned for updates about learning more about this site and its history, which dates back to the 17th century. The photo is of the Gresham Estate today.

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